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ESEA Compromise Emerges in Washington

As most of you know, and as I will proudly proclaim once again, your pal Little Eddie has officially turned six. I’m practically a grown-up. That means I have more liberty to stay up later, make choices regarding vegetable consumption at dinner, and riddle my blog posts with six-year-old snark.

To ring in my newfound maturity, I need a big, important post. And what could be bigger or more important than the fact that we now stand on the cusp of ESEA reauthorization?

We’ve talked a fair amount about the somewhat tortured ESEA reauthorization process since last January.  After some rough waters earlier this year, grinding work during the summer led to what I thought was a fairly promising reauthorization bill passing in the U.S. House of Representatives. Shortly thereafter, the U.S. Senate followed suit by passing its own bipartisan bill. Conflicts between the more conservative House bill and the more moderate Senate bill (and the White House, which has been a little weird about the whole thing) necessitated a conference committee between the chambers to work out differences.

Now, after months of waiting, what looks like a viable compromise bill has emerged. It’s getting a fair amount of praise from a number of corners—some of which I find a little concerning—but many folks are still trying to parse through the massive document. If you’d care to read the entire 1,061 page bill, you can find it here.

For those who value their eyesight and are not paid to undertake masochistic feats of pure wonkery, Education Week has put together a helpful rundown of the provisions in the bill.  Here are a few of what I think are the most important bits:

  • Annual reading and math testing will still be required in grades 3-8, and once in high school. This is very important, as it preserves the ability to calculate and use growth data in addition to point-in-time test scores. In addition to denying parents and educators important information about how their students are doing academically, using only test scores without growth can be seriously problematic when it comes to fairly grading schools and identifying issues among the subgroups who most need help. (As an important side note, up to seven states could be selected to pilot local testing systems designed to lead to better statewide tests–not unlike the one created in last year’s Colorado testing compromise bill or the one currently being piloted in New Hampshire.)
  • States would still be required to maintain accountability systems that include test scores to some extent, but would have more leeway to choose which other factors schools ought to be held accountable for. Some of these factors are expected—English language learner performance and graduation rates, for instance—but others could involve looking at things not usually included in these systems, like school environment, engagement levels, or access to advanced coursework. Although it isn’t explicitly required at this stage, one of those factors needs to be growth.
  • Weaponized No Child Left Behind waivers would be a thing of the past. Waivers like the one Colorado just received would expire on August 1. That’s a very good thing for those of us concerned about the level of influence the U.S. Department of Education has exercised through Secretary Arne Duncan’s use of waivers from NCLB’s more onerous requirements and sanctions. This does, however, mean that there would be no more requirements regarding strong teacher accountability systems. Here’s hoping Colorado will stick to its guns on principle even in the absence of a mandate.
  • States would need to adopt “challenging” academic standards, which presumably would include Common Core, but the federal government would be prohibited from requiring or even encouraging states to adopt any specific set of standards. Looking at you, Race to the Top.
  • States would be required to intervene in the lowest five percent of schools, and in high schools with graduation rates below 67 percent. Exactly what those interventions would look like would be up to states. I’d personally like to see interventions required in more than just the absolute worst schools, but I suppose there is nothing restricting states from going above and beyond the five percent threshold. Interestingly, the bill would require states to step in if schools stayed in the failing category for four years–one year less than required by Colorado’s five-year accountability clock. How these two provisions would play together remains to be seen.
  • There is no Title I portability, which is disappointing despite being understandable given the risk of opening the bill up to a veto from President Obama. However, there is a provision in the bill allowing for 50 school districts to participate in a “backpack funding” pilot that could go beyond even the student-based budgeting efforts we’ve seen here in Colorado. I am particularly interested in this provision and how we could get some Colorado districts in on the action.

There’s also a whole lot of stuff in the bill regarding opt-outs, ELL students, and special needs kids, but we won’t cover that today. Rest assured that I will be watching this bill very closely as it moves ahead quickly. With a little luck, we could see something move within the next few weeks. Until then, we have a little more waiting to do.